GDC Online 12: Raph Koster's thoughts 10 years on from A Theory of Fun

#gdconline Wrestling with reductionism

GDC Online 12: Raph Koster's thoughts 10 years on from A Theory of Fun
It was 10 years ago that Raph Koster - then of Sony Online, now of Disney-owned Playdom - gave a seminal talk called A Theory of Fun.

It was turned into a book, which has gone onto sell over 30,000 copies.

Good timing then for a follow up: A Theory of Fun: 10 Years On.

Koster recapped the basic theory, which says that learning and fun (including games) generate the same pleasurable 'hit' to the brain as we get from drugs such as cocaine.

Pleasure principle

This sort of thing has been well known for decades; Koster's interest and significance comes from how he applies this to computer games.

"We have an art form that rewires people's brains, and that means we have responsibility," he said; also pointing that the ethnical elements of his book was a part that many people in the industry had issues with, albeit one which kickstarted the art-games genre.

More criticism concerned the 'reduction of people to pattern recognition machines'.

"A lot of people hate this can be reduced to something that's mechanical, but the more science that has come out over the past 10 years, the more this has been proven," Koster explained.

Another situation arising from these views was the gamification movement, which brings gameplay elements to social marketing.


Koster then went on discuss how the talk and book changed he way he worked.

"I started to have to look at games in a different way; it up-ended my view on how to make good games," he said.

Building on research from K. Ander Ericsson [of 10,000 hours of practice fame), he now looks upon games as akin to practice machines. In turn, this fragmented his view on the very definition of 'game', and begun a drive for 'Grammar of Games'.

Working on well known MMOG mechanics, Koster came to use what he calls 'a game atom', or the smallest elements of how a game mechanic - and indeed the game itself - works.

It's something he uses via a simple graphical flow diagram to design and critique games.

"The number of 'verbs' in Facebook games has quadrupled over the past couple of years, which shows how the market is developing," Koster said.

Cutting both ways

Still, for all his arguments about reduction, Koster is an artist and one who kicks again a "math-only" view of art, including computer games.

As part of this confusion, he discussed whether we need a new name for some kinds of experiences of what we currently call 'game'.

Indeed, beyond this is the wider debate - in science and technology - between 'how' and 'why'?

The drive of this big data approach is that you can analyse an (any) audience to find and optimise clusters without caring about the behaviour you're changing, only the end results.

Taking this sort of behaviour to its logical conclusion, Koster pointed to the rise of systems such as Facebook, asking"Should we treat life as a game?"

Yet, to conclude, Koster took a more positive approach, saying that despite his misgivings, games can - and should - take their place in the human endeavour of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The full slide deck of the talk will be available on and/or 
Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.


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